Working with the Food Industry to Reduce Confusion Over Date Labels
By Ned Sharpless, M.D., Acting Commissioner, and Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response
Between the food industry and consumers, Americans are throwing out about a third of our food — approximately 133 billion pounds or $161 billion in food each year — according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Part of the problem is that date labeling on packaged foods isn’t user-friendly. It has been estimated that confusion over the multitude of different date labeling terms on food products accounts for about 20 percent of food waste in the home. “Use before,” “sell by” and “expires on” are just some of the terms used.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believes that food waste is due, in part, to fears that consumers have about food safety. These concerns may often be caused by a misunderstanding of the meaning of the terms on product date labels.
To help reduce this confusion, the FDA issued a letter today to the food industry supporting the industry’s efforts to standardize voluntary date labeling if the date is simply used for quality — not safety. Standardizing date labeling can provide consumers with consistent information that is easy to understand and is recognizable.
The FDA strongly supports manufacturers’ use of the introductory phrase “Best If Used By” when they choose to apply a quality date label. Consumer research has shown that this phrasing helps consumers understand that the date label is about quality, not safety, and that products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly.
This is consistent with an earlier recommendation by USDA that the “Best If Used By” wording be used when a manufacturer chooses to apply a quality date label on the products that USDA regulates. This will indicate to consumers the date up to which the product will be at its optimal quality and flavor, but foods not showing signs of spoilage should still be wholesome and may be eaten or donated beyond that date.
It’s important to note that date labels are not required by federal regulations with one exception — infant formula, which is often used as the sole source of nutrition for infants. The FDA requires infant formulas to be labeled with a “Use By” date, which is selected by the manufacturer based on tests and other information. The “Use By” date on infant formula indicates that, under the conditions prescribed by label directions, the nutrient content and quality of the formula can be guaranteed until such date. The FDA’s steps to help clarify voluntary quality-based date labeling do not impact this infant formula requirement.
The FDA’s efforts to reduce consumer confusion about voluntary date labeling are part of the White House initiative, Winning on Reducing Food Waste. The FDA is working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and USDA to educate consumers, engage key stakeholders, and develop and evaluate solutions to reduce food loss and waste. This is an opportunity to align efforts across the federal government to collectively approach an important issue that affects every American.
The issues of food waste and food safety are intertwined — both are major societal concerns and top priorities for the FDA. We are working with our federal partners and other stakeholders to better educate Americans on how to reduce food waste and how to do it safely without risking illness from consuming spoiled food. This includes consistent and uniform messaging about what food product dating and date labels mean. More information and resources are available on FDA.gov.
The agency is also working with the food industry to address obstacles to ensuring the safety of foods that are not sold, for a variety of reasons, but can be donated to help feed those in need instead of going to a landfill. This includes gauging whether FDA’s own regulations are impacting businesses’ ability to donate unsold foods.
The U.S. government has established a goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030. We are pulling together on all levels of government, involving the food industry, and reaching out to consumers. Working together, we can reach this goal.
Reducing food waste is a shared responsibility and the public has an important role to play. It is the FDA’s hope that by supporting the use of standardized voluntary date labels for quality, it will be easier for consumers to know whether a food is still good to eat. The FDA is committed to doing all that we can to support safe and sound decisions that are good for our families, good for our communities, and good for the planet.